KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Near the southern gate of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in this Afghan city stands a guard post. It’s peppered with shrapnel holes the size of golf balls. On the floor is a black slipper stained with dried blood. Strands of hair stick to the ceiling, and in the dirt outside fragments of bone are easy to find.
When Mohammad Sami, the head guard, is asked who was killed here, he grabs a visitor’s notebook and writes: Shafiq. Instantly Killed.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 3, an American AC-130 gunship swung low and fired at the compound, and then circled back four more times, shooting for more than an hour. The aerial assault, which the U.S. military now deems a mistake, killed 30 people, including 13 members of the hospital staff. Patients, including children, were killed. Some lying in beds in the emergency rooms and the intensive care unit were burned to death. It was one of the deadliest civilian-casualty incidents of the Afghanistan war.
On a recent visit, the trauma was still palpable and signs of the attack still visible. An unexploded rocket was embedded in a wall. Another was blown up by Afghan de-miners in a controlled explosion earlier in the morning.
The torn bodies are long gone, carefully removed by relatives and colleagues. But you can imagine the patient who once lay in that bed, now a tangle of rusted steel. You can see the patient once covered in the wool blanket now lying in the rubble.
And then there’s the kitchen. The hospital staff has cleaned it, and the floor is gleaming white. But then an employee tells you what unfolded here that fateful morning. All three of the operating theaters were bombed. So the doctors and nurses carried as many patients as they could to the kitchen. It became a makeshift surgery room, and the floor was soon covered with blood.
Not far from the kitchen is the entrance to the basement. Those who were fortunate found sanctuary here as the gunship pounded everything above. They included Zahidullah Molakhil, who worked in the laundry room. During the visit, he showed a video he had taken on his cellphone. All you could see was a tree of flames, images apparently shot from a window.
Everyone here shakes their head in disbelief when asked about the explanation that Afghan officials offer for requesting the U.S. airstrike: that fighting was going on outside, that the Taliban was using the facility as a base. “At the moment the hospital came under attack, there was no fighting going on,” said Sami, the head guard. “That’s why I had gone to rest in my room.”
The area around the hospital was a battle zone, to be sure, with troops and insurgents clashing on nearby streets, witnesses said. But the gunfire had “stopped around 1 a.m.,” recalled Mohammad Azim, a neighbor. The airstrike unfolded an hour later.
Outside the hospital, there were signs of the devastation caused by the strike. A grocery shop and a restaurant across the street from the main entrance were destroyed.
“We have no other source of income,” said Abdul Mobin, 19, the owner of the shop, which he said provided for his mother and six siblings.
From his shop, from where he could see the hospital’s main gate, Mobin watched some Taliban fighters arrive at the compound in the days after they captured the city on Sept 28. They were leaving their guns at the entrance and entering unarmed, he recalled. “They were not using the hospital as a base,” said Mobin, who had closed his shop a day earlier as fighting neared the area.
There are no plans to reopen the hospital. Not until the conclusion of investigations into what Doctors Without Borders says was a deliberate attack and a possible war crime. Not until all sides in this war provide guarantees that the hospital’s staff and patients will be safe, said Wiet Vandormael, the interim field coordinator for the aid agency.
This was the only trauma facility in the northeastern region, providing free care after traffic accidents or bomb blasts. Last year, 22,000 patients were treated here and more than 5,900 surgeries were performed, according to Doctors Without Borders. Now, only a regional government hospital and a clinic at the airport provides free medical care, but they can’t handle complex surgical cases.
Near the abandoned offices of the hospital, someone had scrawled on a wall in capital letters: